Sask. farmers embracing locally developed ag tech

At any point during the growing season, Jake Leguee can check the app and see how much soil moisture is on his farm.

He installed a half-dozen weather stations on his property — third-generation land he farms with his family near Fillmore, Sask., in the southeastern part of the state — to make his work a success. The stations track various factors that affect plants, such as air and soil temperature, humidity levels and wind. The app, developed by a Saskatchewan agricultural technology company, helps him interpret the data.

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“That has really made a difference in how we treat our plants, and it makes for a healthier environment, because we don’t add inputs if we don’t need them,” said Leguee.

The federal government’s goal of reducing emissions from fertilizer use by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, was released two years ago. reigned in the community this spring and summer for a series of discussions on how to achieve that.

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But Leguee says Canadian farmers have long worked to make their jobs, including the use of inputs, as efficient as possible, and a willingness to learn, experiment and use new technologies is essential to the job.

A man works with a combine in a gold field.  She has a small child on her lap.  A woman is sitting next to him with a child, and another boy is sitting on the floor of the cabin near the wheel.
Jake Leguee farms with his wife, children and other family members in southwestern Saskatchewan. (Jake Legue)

That’s part of the reason why Saskatchewan is a hotbed for emerging ag technology, according to many industry experts. Also, farmers in that province have a history of embracing new technology and supporting local startups, said Sean O’Connor, managing director of Emmertech, a $60 million Conexus fund focused on Saskatchewan ag tech startups.

“Farmers are the most innovative business owners in Canada as far as we’re concerned, and they’re looking for new solutions,” he said.

“You can’t build ag tech companies on Bay Street. They’re at the bottom of agricultural ecosystems, where you’re in direct contact with the industry itself.”

‘A great place to do business’

Croptimistic Technology is one of the Saskatchewan-based ag tech companies feeling the local love. Launched in 2018 at Naicam, it develops custom soil, water and topography (SWAT) maps for farmers.

“It’s been a great place to do business,” said founder Cory Willness, who worked as an agronomist for many years before founding the company. “In Western Canada in general, there are a lot of first-time farmers.”

Cropoptimistic’s SWAT maps help farmers pinpoint which parts of their fields need nutrients and which don’t, Willness says, which can lead to up to 15 percent more profit. He gave this example: If a farmer spends 5 million dollars to buy fertilizer and seeds, but 5 percent of the acres are wiped out, that means $250,000 is lost.

A man and a woman wearing ball caps emblazoned with 'SWAT Maps' stand hand in hand.  In the background, you can see the farmer's field and machinery.
Cory Willness founded Croptimistic Technology with his wife, Shannon, in 2018. They live in Naicam, Sask., 150 kilometers east of Saskatoon. (Submitted by Croptimistic Technology)

Croptimistic is in good company. In Regina, Precision AI has developed artificially intelligent drones that operate autonomously, precision spraying, and Ground Truth Ag has created technology that helps farmers analyze and record grain samples in real time to better understand crop quality. In nearby Emerald Park, Crop Intelligence has an application that allows farmers to analyze data from their weather stations to make better production decisions, improving their crop quality and profitability.

Better productivity

This technology has not only allowed farmers to save money due to lower planting costs, but also improves yield potential, said Dr. Stuart Smyth, research chair in agricultural performance innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.

For example, if a farmer has 320 hectares and can determine that a disease affects only 5 percent of their crops, the cost of applying the pesticide to the entire area of ​​the land may be higher than that of the lost crops.

“I tell my students that over the next decade, the use of these digital technologies has the potential to really change what productive agriculture looks like,” Smyth said.

Agriculture accounted for 10 percent of Canada’s GDP in 2019, according to the federal government, and from 2005 to 2019, fertilizer use increased 71 percent.

“It’s a win for the farmer, and it’s a win for the environment,” Willness says about improving fertilizer efficiency.

Startup support

In addition to farmers interested in technology, Saskatchewan has the first support system, O’Connor says, with the presence of major industry players, such as Brandt, AGT Foods, Protein Industries Canada, and provincial centers for economic development and technology – such as Innovation Saskatchewan. – advanced ag technology.

I hear it said, ‘You’ll never get into the farmers – they just do the same thing their grandfather did.’ But I haven’t seen that at all.– Jason McNamee, Lucent Biosciences

Jason McNamee heard the acceptance of this ecosystem when he and his Vancouver-based Lucent Biosciences team developed their idea for Soileos at Saskatchewan’s first technology competition in 2019. A plant-based fertilizer that touts benefits such as improved yield, cost and environmental sustainability. .

Although they did not win the competition, they caught the attention of the CEO of AGT Foods.

“Murad Al-Katib came to me right after the pitch and said, ‘Are you saying what I think you are saying?’ And he gave me his card,” McNamee recalled.

Months later, AGT and Lucent partnered with a consortium of other companies to secure funding from Protein Industries Canada for $19 million.

Lucent is currently finalizing the development of its new manufacturing facility in Rosetown, Sask., which will employ about 20 people and have the capacity to produce about 7,000 tons of product a year – to boot. They expect Soileos to be available to Saskatchewan farmers next spring.

“The ag tech community in Saskatchewan is very strong,” McNamee said. “I keep hearing, ‘You can’t go into the farmers – they’re just doing the same thing their grandfather did.’ But I never saw that.”

Overcoming obstacles

Saskatchewan’s tech industry still has a long way to go, and big challenges ahead.

First, more investment is needed, O’Connor said, as shown by the fact that there was $182 million in investment in Canadian ag tech last year, compared to $4.9 billion in the United States.

Low angle of a green farmer's field, ripe with crops.  A row of silos can be seen in the distance.
Jake Leguee says Canadian farmers have long been working to make their operations as successful as possible, and a willingness to learn, experiment and use new technologies is essential to the job. (Jake Legue)

One of the challenges of getting investment in this sector is that it’s a poorly understood industry, says O’Connor, and these technologies need more time to be developed and adopted, meaning it takes longer for investors to see a return.

Finally, small businesses here struggle to hire local workers, especially in software development, Willness said.

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges: trying to compete with everyone else for tech talent. It’s a hot field.”

Still, the fact that Saskatchewan is already seeing this level of ag tech development and investment is good news for Western Canada, O’Connor said.

“At the moment, it does not enter the big institutions. Instead of fighting for crumbs, we can get our own piece of bread.”

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